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TideWriters Tales
Historic Gardens of Mt. Airy (1997)
By Jewell Kirby Keroher

     In this month of July, when we celebrate America's independence, it is fitting that we take note of the contributions of two great families of the Northern Neck which, together, greatly influenced the destiny of our country—the Tayloes and the Lees. The year 1997 also marks the two hundred year anniversary of the death of Francis Lightfoot Lee, of Menokin, younger son of Thomas and Hannah Lee 

     The Northern Neck represents one of the first areas of Virginia to be settled following Jamestown and Williamsburg. Here, the sons of wealthy English families took up large tracts of land, built fine houses, and became active in the politics of the Colony, in keeping with their station in life. Many of these fine homes have fallen victim to aging, and only their general location and description are remembered. Others have been restored or memorialized by gifts and subscriptions from private organizations, such as the Lee family home in Stratford and the Washington birthplace at Wakefield. 

     Only a very few have been occupied by members of the family without interruption from the time they were built to the present day. Mt. Airy is one of these. (Mt. Airy is spelled as “Mt.”, in keeping with the colonial practice of abbreviating words whenever possible, perhaps to save tedious writing long words with a quill pen.)
The story of Mt. Airy begins with the earliest exploration of Captain John Smith, for it is said he sailed up "Rappahannock Creek", today known as Cat Point Creek, at a point where it joins the Rappahannock River near the present community of Naylors.

     It was in this area in 1651 that Moore Fauntleroy bought a parcel of land on the north side of this creek from the Rappahannock Indians. He had acquired much land in the Farnham area, but with this purchase, he moved to Naylors and built several homes here. The record is sketchy because the family graveyard at Naylors was destroyed by the frequent floods. 

     The first Tayloe to come to the Northern Neck was William who left Yorktown in the 1650's and acquired much land, probably from Fauntleroy. He built the first Tayloe house, now known as the "Old House" right on Cat Point Creek. It is reported to have been very large—20 rooms—and of brick. He raised blooded horses and it is believed many of today's race horses are descended from this stock.

     Upon his death, his son, John Tayloe I, became owner. John Tayloe II was born in the "Old House", and, upon the death of his father, inherited it. Each son in turn had acquired more land so that the holdings had increased to some 3,000 acres.

     Along with the acreage, the sons acquired the honorary title of "Colonel", perhaps more in polite recognition of the means to raise and outfit a military unit in time of need as opposed to actual military service.

     It was during the tenure of John Tayloe II that the "Old House" burned and Mt. Airy was built, on the same property but this time farther from the Rappahannock River. He was quite interested in architecture and was much influenced by the Italian Palladian style, so that his design for Mt. Airy shows the precisioned balance of architectural features as well as the use of graceful arched Palladian windows.

     His design featured a substantial central two-story building with an imposing entrance. Two flights of marble steps rise from the parking area, flanked on either side by unique curved walkways. These not only softened the severity of the formal design but served as passage ways for easy access to the house without passing through the formal entrance. It was here, on hot summer afternoons, the ladies relaxed in the cool shade for their afternoon tea.

     This great house was built of rich red sandstone, quarried on the property. A lighter pale golden sandstone was used to delineate a fascia around the main entrance, including a Greek roof. The house was set upon a high terrace, as on a dais, with the land sloping away in a series of terraces.

     The main door and side lights are in keeping with the high ceilings (14' 3") inside. A large fireplace of dressed stone occupies the wall opposite the main door. On either side are tall Palladian windows and a door to an uncovered flagstone veranda with a flight of wide steps leading down to a grassy terrace.

     Below it stretches a second level terrace a great oblong of closely clipped grass—called the Bowling Green. It was here the family and their guests actually played the game, somewhat like the modern day croquet. An old bowling ball from those days is permanently lodged in a nearby tree. Two huge yew trees, one on either side, whose age is contemporary with the house, balance the Bowling Green. On both sides, wide beds of tall perennials—iris, peonies, day lilies—border its length.

     At the far end of the Bowling Green is a still lower terrace, edged with wide formal flower beds. To the left and on a lower level is a less formal terrace garden. In the center is Polly Tayloe's "Tussie Mussie" garden, a play on an old English name for a nosegay. Delightful herbs and flowering plants are arranged in quadrants around a bird bath.

     An interesting feature of the terraces is a special portion of a gentler slope. As Polly Tayloe explains, "It is less steep so the mule pulling the mower could keep his footing."

     Colonel Tayloe not only managed a great plantation, but was actively involved in the colonial government. In those days transportation was slow and could take several days. As a consequence the family spent a great deal of time in Williamsburg.

     It was during one of the family's prolonged visits that his daughter, Rebecca, met Francis Lightfoot Lee.
After the death of Thomas Lee of Westmoreland County, this younger son represented Loudon County in the House of Burgesses. He was 23 years old when he took residence in Loudon County. However, Lee stayed in Williamsburg when the House of Burgesses was in session.

     Rebecca was only 16 or 17 years old and he was nearly thirty when the two fell madly in love. They were married in 1769. Her father presented the young couple with l,000 acres of Mt. Airy land and began the building of Menokin. While the construction was underway, the young couple lived at Mt. Airy.

     Thus the story of these two great plantations is joined. 

© 1997 Jewell Kirby Keroher All Rights Reserved

Ms. Keroher is deceased.


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